Counter-Marketing Foreign Terrorist Organizations: Best Practices from the Truth Initiative

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In the sixteen years since the 9/11 attacks, the United States government continues to execute a military-centric counterterrorism (CT) strategy in the Middle East and Africa, absent an integrated and synchronized information component to what is now recognized as a generational “War of Ideas.” The void of information alternatives enabled the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 to acquire prolific brand recognition and global market share, which in turn, fueled the organization’s unprecedented foreign fighter recruiting efforts. U.S. government and partner efforts to counter-messaging and propaganda from ISIS, al Qaeda (AQ), and other Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), continue to face criticism. This project recommends the Global Engagement Center (GEC) use a “Truth-like” counter-marketing methodology to discourage youth from joining FTOs. As a component of a long-term U.S. counter-terrorism (CT) strategy, the GEC should target the 200 million Arab youth currently under the age of 25, use a brand-based approach to unify partner efforts, and establish a digital repository of incriminating FTO and counter-marketing material that can be shared with global partners. This project consists of a policy problem assessment, a case study of the Truth Initiative and Campaign, a comparative analysis of other U.S. government activities, and a series of policy recommendations.

This project identifies a number of counter-marketing best practices from America’s largest non-profit anti-tobacco organization, the Truth Initiative, which could improve the GEC’s counter-messaging mission against FTOs. The Truth Initiative, previously known as the American Legacy Foundation, created one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history, the Truth Campaign. It is important to acknowledge that the counter-marketing of tobacco and terrorism are not perfect comparisons, and this paper does not intend to imply that they are. This project recognizes a counter-marketing approach to CT messaging will not be a panacea, as a media campaign will not fix poor governance, or address legitimate grievances that lead individuals and FTOs to commit violence. However, a well-executed counter-marketing campaign should be used to undermine and diminish the recruiting influence that FTOs exert on global youth.





Williams, Michael (2017). Counter-Marketing Foreign Terrorist Organizations: Best Practices from the Truth Initiative. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from

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